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Thornton plays coach in 'Friday Night Lights'

Billy Bob Thornton tackles high school football in his latest film. The versatile actor talks about his role based on a true story.
/ Source: TODAY

Over the past year, Billy Bob Thornton has played a president, a bad Santa and Davy Crockett, so he definitely doesn't have to worry about being type cast. Now in his new movie "Friday Night Lights," we get to see more proof of his versatility as he plays a high school head football coach. “Today” host Matt Lauer talks to Thornton about his latest role.

Matt Lauer: Billy Bob Thornton, good morning.

Billy Bob Thornton: How are you?

Matt Lauer: I was reading you always wanted to do a sports movie, is that right?

Thornton: I've always wanted to. My dad was a high school basketball coach, and I was a baseball player in high school. So I grew up in sports and just a big fan, always have been. And, as we were talking about before, you know, there have been some terrific sports movies and, you know, some not so good. But when they get it right, it's pretty emotional, and I've always wanted to do one.

Lauer: This book came out about 15 years ago, I read it and loved the book. Why did it take so long to get this to the big screen?

Thornton: Well, that's – that's a question that's hard to answer. I mean, you know, Hollywood is pretty fickle. And you never know what they're going to respond to or what the circumstances are. I mean, sometimes it's simply that it didn't come together because they tried to make deals with various people and they didn't work out or whatever. But also, you know, they're just sometimes afraid to make a movie, you know? I mean, period. You've got to really convince them. And I guess, you know, here's another sports movie and it's like, `Well, why should we make this one?' But they don't always know, you know, exactly what it's about. And this is about humans, you know.

Lauer: Some people hear sports movie, and they run in the other direction, but – but the fact of the matter is to be a good one and – and to really work, it's got to have a lot of different levels to it...

Thornton: That's right.

Lauer:  ...and this one does. "Friday Night Lights" refers to the Friday night football game that's dominate life in a lot of towns and cities across this country. Give me a little explanation of why this becomes such a cultural event for these towns?

Tim McGraw and Garrett Hedlund in Universal Pictures' Friday Night Lights - 2004

Lauer: They take it very seriously.

Thornton: ...it's a whole other deal. And it's like their social life and politics sometimes, too. It's – it's pretty heavy there.

Lauer: You play a real guy, Gary Gaines is the coach of this high school football team, but he's got probably more pressure on him than a lot of small college coaches or major college coaches have on them.

Thornton: That's right.

Lauer: How is he viewed by the people in town?

Thornton: Well, those coaches in these – in these towns, they're looked at as heroes if they're winning, and goats if they're losing. And...

Lauer: And the town openly debates the difference.

Thornton: Absolutely. And they'll tell you how to run the team. I watched this happen to my dad. I mean, you can bet that the boosters will come by the house every now and then, and say, “Hey, listen, we were thinking maybe you ought to do this.” And the thing about it is the pressure on a coach like this, it's not just about winning for himself and his team, it's also for his family. Because if you don't win, you move again.

Lauer: Yeah, you're picked – you're packing up and moving to the next small town.

Thornton: That's right.

Lauer: I think the movie, and based on the book, I haven't seen the film yet, is really about dreams. It's – it's not only about the dreams of the players who suit up every Friday night, but in some ways it is about the unfulfilled dreams of the people in town who try to live vicariously through those dreams.

Thornton: Absolutely, that's very true. It is the dream of – of the town. The sort of collective dream, and a lot of individual dreams. Like you said, there's some people who never quite made it there, and – and do live vicariously through these players and the coaches. They're really revered, you know, the football players and the coaches in these towns. But, you know, the other thing this movie is about, it's about putting all of your eggs in one basket. I mean, if that's your dream, if something happens, you, you know, blow a knee out or get a shoulder injury, whatever, if that's all you've ever thought of doing, and you haven't really prepared for anything else, then, you know, your life can be over. You know, or at least really drastically changed in terms of your dreams.

Lauer: Obviously, the drama in this is that events like this bring out the best and the worst in – in a lot of people. On the best side, you had a baby a couple of weeks ago.

Thornton: Yes, that's true.

Lauer: Bella. Congratulations.

Thornton: Bella, thank you.

Lauer: And you're sleeping?

Thornton: Yeah.

Lauer: You got – you got to write a book about that.

Thornton: Oh, I know. She's pretty calm. I don't know what happened. Sure – sure didn't get it from me.

Lauer: Well, congratulations.

Thornton: Thank you.

Lauer: The movie is called "Friday Night Lights." Bill Bob Thornton, always good to have you here.

Thornton: Thanks.